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Death by Doctor



Medical Errors May Be the Third Leading Cause of Death

Doctors make mistakes, too. A new analysis suggests that it happens shockingly often.


Doctors’ and nurses’ mistakes could kill more than 250,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to an estimate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

If you put that figure into the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of the top causes of death, it would be third—right behind heart disease and cancer.

The 250,000 number is an estimate because “medical error” isn’t an official cause of death that gets recorded on death certificates. If your surgeon accidentally nicks an organ, causing internal bleeding and cardiac arrest, your cause of death may be listed as “cardiovascular.”

To find out how many fatal hospital errors occur, researchers have to look through a sample of patient records for red flags (like an incorrect medication dosage, for instance), find out whether the patient died afterward, and try to determine whether the mistake contributed to the death.

One 2010 study estimated that 0.6 percent of the patients who walked into 10 North Carolina hospitals wound up being killed by their health care providers.

For this new analysis, researchers looked at four previous studies on medical errors and averaged the rates of fatal errors per hospital admission. Then they extrapolated that figure to the total number of people admitted to hospitals in 2013, which led them to the estimate of 250,000 annual deaths.

Doctors and nurses are human, so some mistakes are inevitable, says study author and surgeon Martin Makary, M.D. And as with any profession, some health care providers and hospitals are better than others.

Medication errors are one of the most common slips, says Dr. Makary, author of Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.

A simple math error when calculating or measuring your dosage could cause a deadly overdose. A sleep-deprived nurse could accidentally inject you with a painkiller instead of penicillin—one fatal mistake that actually occurred in 2006.

And then there are infections, which can be caused by improper sterilization procedures, and miscommunications, where crucial information slips between the cracks as you get transferred from provider to provider.

But certain patients tend to get excellent care, Dr. Makary says: the ones who are most involved. Here’s how you can be vigilant when you find yourself in a hospital.

Get a Second Opinion
As we mentioned above, misdiagnosis is common. Remember that next time you’re dealing with a serious health problem, and consult a second doctor to verify your diagnosis, says Dr. Makary.

Same goes for choosing a treatment plan: 20 percent of the time, a second doctor’s opinion will differ from your first doctor’s, says Dr. Makary. You may find out about a minimally invasive procedure that your first doc didn’t mention, for example.

The more experts you consult, the more confident you can be that you’re getting the best care.

Be a Pest
Every time you’re in the hospital, you or your companion should know every medication you’re being given and every test you’re having done, and why it is necessary, Dr. Makary says.

The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority also advises asking your nurse to confirm your identity each time he gives you a drug, so he doesn’t accidentally give you someone else’s medication.

If you’re double-checking your doctors and nurses, you can catch potential mistakes.

And don’t be afraid to speak up your health care providers:

  • During diagnosis, ask: What else could it be?
  • When discussing treatment options, ask: What are the alternatives?
  • When receiving care, ask: Did you wash your hands/change your gloves? Is that sterile?



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